St. Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi abandoned a life of luxury for a life devoted to Christianity after reportedly hearing the voice of God, who commanded him to rebuild the Christian church and live in poverty.
Born in Italy circa 1181, Saint Francis of Assisi was renowned for drinking and partying in his youth. After fighting in a battle between Assisi and Perugia, Francis was captured and imprisoned for ransom. He spent nearly a year in prison — awaiting his father’s payment — and, according to legend, began receiving visions from God. Consequently, he abandoned his life of luxury and became a devotee of the faith, his reputation spreading all over the Christian world.
When he came back to Assisi, however, Francis was a very different man. Upon his return, he was dangerously sick in both mind and body — a battle-fatigued casualty of war.
One day, as legend has it, while riding on a horse in the local countryside, Francis encountered a leper. Prior to the war, Francis would have run from the leper, but on this occasion, his behavior was very different. Viewing the leper as a symbol of moral conscience — or as Jesus incognito, according to some religious scholars — he embraced and kissed him. After this incident, Francis felt an indescribable freedom. His earlier lifestyle had lost all its appeal.
Subsequently, Francis, now in his early 20s, began turning his focus toward God. Instead of working, he spent an ever-increasing amount of time at a remote mountain hideaway as well as in old, quiet churches around Assisi, praying, looking for answers, and helping nurse lepers. During this time, while praying before an old Byzantine crucifix at the church of San Damiano, Francis reportedly heard the voice of Christ, who told him to rebuild the Christian Church and to live a life of extreme poverty. Francis obeyed and devoted himself to Christianity. He began preaching around Assisi and was soon joined by 12 loyal followers.
After his epiphany at the church of San Damiano, Francis experienced another defining moment in his life. In order to raise money to rebuild the Christian church, he sold a bolt of cloth from his father’s shop, along with his horse. His father became furious upon learning of his son’s actions and subsequently dragged Francis before the local bishop.
The bishop told Francis to return his father’s money, to which his reaction was extraordinary: He stripped off his clothes, and along with them, returned the money back to his father, declaring that God was now the only father he recognized. This event is credited as Francis’ final conversion, and there is no indication that Francis and his father ever spoke again thereafter.
The bishop gave Francis a rough tunic, and dressed in these new humble clothes, Francis left Assisi. Unluckily for him, the first people he met on the road were a group of dangerous thieves, who beat him badly. Despite his wounds, Francis was elated. From now on, he would live according to the Gospel.
Francis’ embrace of Christ-like poverty was a radical notion at the time. The Christian church was tremendously rich, much like the people heading it, which concerned Francis and many others, who felt that the long-held apostolic ideals had eroded. Francis set out on a mission to restore Jesus Christ’s own, original values to the now-decadent church. With his incredible charisma, he drew thousands of followers to him. They listened to Francis’ sermons and joined in his way of life; his followers became known as Franciscan friars.
Continuously pushing himself in the quest for spiritual perfection, Francis was soon preaching in up to five villages per day, teaching a new kind of emotional and personal Christian religion that everyday people could understand. He even went so far as to preach to animals, which garnered criticism from some and earned him the nickname “God’s fool.” But Francis’ message was spread far and wide, and thousands of people were captivated by what they heard.
In 1224 Francis reportedly received a vision that left him with the stigmata of Christ — marks resembling the wounds Jesus Christ suffered when he was crucified, through his hands and the gaping lance wound in his side. This made Francis the first person to receive the holy wounds of the stigmata. They would remain visible for the rest of his life. Because of his earlier work treating lepers, some believe that the wounds were actually symptoms of leprosy.
As Francis approached his death, many predicted that he was a saint in the making. When his health began to decline more rapidly, Francis went home. Knights were sent from Assisi to guard him and to make sure that no one from neighboring towns would carry him off (the body of a saint was viewed, at the time, as an extremely valuable relic that would bring, among many things, glory to the town where it rested).
Francis of Assisi died on October 3, 1226, at the age of 44, in Assisi, Italy.
Today, Francis has a lasting resonance with millions of followers across the globe. He was canonized as a saint just two years after his death, on July 16, 1228. Today, Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint for ecologists — a title honoring his boundless love for animals and nature.